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Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011
Comedy's a funny business in Japan
Life's no laughing matter at a school that's groomed — and taught discipline to — many of the nation's top gagsters since 1982
By EDAN CORKILL
Downtown, Ninety-Nine, Cream Stew, Neptune, Bananaman, Penalty, Black Mayonnaise, Tutorial, License, King Kong, Peace, Punk Boo Boo, Slim Club, Oriental Radio . . .
What on Earth is all this about?
Well, if you are familiar with the daily deluge of delights offered up on Japanese television, you'll know at once that the names in that list comprise some of the nation's most popular comedy groups.
Well, over the last seven days in Tokyo, for example, not a single hour went by during TV's "golden time" (7 p.m. till 10 p.m.) when there were fewer than two programs featuring these comedians or others of their ilk.
Some commentators estimate that between 70 percent and 80 percent of all the so-called tarento (TV personalities) on the box in this country are comedians. Yet for anyone who has ever even glanced at a small screen here, those percentages probably come as no surprise at all.
Comedians are literally everywhere: cracking jokes from the backs of elephants in Thailand; challenging cheetahs to 100-meter dashes in Africa; parasailing in Okinawa; oohing and aahing as they chow down on cake or Chinese dumplings; whizzing through high-paced stand-up routines in pairs or alone; and, when they're not doing those things, they're hosting, hooting, heckling, howling, harrumphing or wisecracking their way through the shoots of any number of studio-based variety shows.
Yes, comedians are everywhere. This we know. But where do they all come from?
Many of these performers provide hints themselves. Almost like the guests on reality-TV shows in the West, many are happy to stand up in front of the cameras and discuss their exes, their salary, their houses, their children and their jimusho (office, or talent agency) — which is more often than not the comedic powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo.
Listen closely, though, and another name gets bandied about frequently: a place named NSC. This is, it turns out, a school with branches in Tokyo and Osaka where somehow or other these people receive the training that prepares them for their "occupations" — if all this clowning can really be described as such.
A school, you ask? A school that teaches you how to crack gags on an elephant? To yelp as you're lifted into the skies over Okinawa? To swoon at the taste of a dumpling? A school that teaches you to be funny? Well, yes. Sort of.
Long puzzled by questions such as these, I recently resolved to seek out some answers. And so it is that, over several days this year, I mingled with the wannabe mirthmeisters and their masters in classes at the Tokyo branch of NSC, or, as it is officially known, New Star Creation.
A burst of applause ripples through the 40 or so young folk seated in neat rows on the floor of a classroom at NSC Tokyo, in the capital's central Jimbocho district. An instructor, Taiki Momino, sits at the back of the room, and he has just called out the name of a fledgling comedy duo whose members have now jumped to attention.
"Class 8, No. 52: Kenya Toba," shouts one. "Class 8, No. 15: Masaki Oi," shouts the other.
The pair then hurry to the front of the room and take up positions either side of a mic-less mic stand.
"Hi there: We're Kung Fu," they call out in unison, before Oi launches quickly into a rapid-fire routine.
"When was the last time we got on a plane and flew overseas?" he asks his partner.
"No idea, but, knowing us, it would have been economy class," Toba answers.
"Right, 'cause the other classes are so expensive."
"That's right. You know, they should make a few more classes you can choose from. They should make them something to look forward to."
"Yeah? Like what?"
"How about the something-to-look-forward-to class?"
"You just said that."
"People will remember us if we repeat ourselves."
"So if I were to fly the something-to-look-forward-to class, what is it that I'd be looking forward to?"
"To finding out your destination."
"You mean I can't choose my destination?"
"Of course not."
The students chuckle quietly — reacting in part to a play on words that doesn't translate into English: The Japanese word for "to look forward to" (tanoshimi) rhymes with the Japanese transliteration of "economy" (ekonomi).
Momino, the instructor, looks on.
"You mean it's a mystery tour!" Oi continues. "How exciting. Gee, I wonder where we're going?"
"Libya, Baghdad, Somalia," Toba answers.
"They're not places to look forward to. They're in the middle of wars!"
"May as well go somewhere thrilling, I thought."
"What other classes do you have?"
"There's always brown-paper-parcel class!"
"Brown-paper-parcel class? What's that?"
"That's the class where you have a mysteriously ticking brown paper parcel under your seat."